This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The sixth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 10th February 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in December 1923.
I might as well get this out of the way… ‘The Double Clue’ isn’t one of my favourite short stories (I don’t hate it – I’m just a bit meh about it), and the adaptation really isn’t one of my favourite episodes either. And – if I wanted to get into an Agatha Christie fandom fight – I’d also say that I don’t really like the way this story has been elevated into a more significant moment in the Poirot canon than it actually is.
As I’ve been rereading Christie’s Sketch stories, I’ve become quite taken with the way she riffs off Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in a rather affectionate homage-y sort of way. So, ‘The Veiled Lady’ references ‘The Speckled Band’; ‘The Lost Mine’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ make little nods to ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’; and ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a playful take on ‘The Red-Headed League’. Given this, it was probably only a matter of time before Christie turned her cheeky gaze on ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ – the first of Doyle’s Holmes short stories.
And so we have ‘The Double Clue’, and Poirot’s version of Irene Adler.
In case it needs any introduction, Doyle’s story sees Holmes consulted by a member of the Bohemian royal family, who has become entangled with the retired opera singer and ‘well-known adventuress’ Irene Adler. The Grand Duke is now being blackmailed by Adler, and he needs Holmes’s help to retrieve some incriminating letters and a photograph, so that she can’t publicize the eponymous scandal and prevent the Grand Duke’s forthcoming marriage to the King of Scandinavia’s daughter. It’s a big case, but Holmes seems to act as though it won’t pose any particular challenge.
But in that the great detective is sorely mistaken. Despite Holmes utilizing his apparently superhuman powers of disguise, Adler is always one step ahead of him, and he is unable to apprehend (or even unmask) the criminal that lies beneath the woman’s respectable exterior. The story ends with Adler writing to Holmes to reveal that she was onto him from the start, but to return the incriminating photograph nevertheless (she’s now married, and gives the excuse of loving her husband to explain why she’s dropping the blackmail plan). She tells him that she’s decided to leave the country before he can catch her, and wishes him a cordial (perhaps even affectionate) goodbye.
Holmes is so taken with the intelligence of the woman – apparently he’s impressed with the way she saw through his disguise – that he asks to keep the photograph of Adler as a souvenir. And that’s it. That’s all there is to the story. But, for some reason (which I’ll come back to shortly), both Holmes and Watson are determined to build this little interlude into the most significant interaction the detective has ever had with the opposite sex. Watson begins the story by saying that, for Holmes, Adler ‘eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex’, and he ends it by noting that this (rather underwhelming) case has completely changed Holmes’s perception of women:
‘He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.’Christie’s take on ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ also sees a great detective running up against an ‘adventuress’. And it also ends with the adventuress heading off into the sunset. But ‘The Double Clue’ is not ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and (more importantly) Vera Rossakoff is not Irene Adler.
As with a few other Poirot stories, ‘The Double Clue’ sees Christie takes the basic outline of a Holmes story and transposes it into the fashionable world of the 1920s. Like his forebear, the detective is consulted at the beginning of the story – but by a ‘celebrity’, rather than a ‘hereditary king’. Marcus Hardman is a man who has ‘spent his money zealously in the pursuit of social pleasure’. Unfortunately, he has been relieved of some of this money/pleasure by a dastardly jewel thief. Loathe to call the police, Hardman has called upon the great Belgian detective (‘as a compromise’) in an attempt to retrieve the stolen jewellery.
The mystery should be a relatively straightforward one for Poirot. The jewels were stolen at a tea party the previous day. Among the guests were a South African millionaire named Johnston, Lady Runcorn, Bernard Parker and Countess Vera Rossakoff (‘a very charming Russian lady, a member of the old régime’). When the safe is examined, two clues are discovered: a man’s glove and a cigarette case engraved with the initials B.P.
‘The Double Clue’ isn’t as perplexing a mystery as many of the other Poirot stories, and it lacks the intricate clueing of much of Christie’s other writing. The central puzzle – the ‘double clue’ of the title – is a bit disappointing when compared with, say, the twin necklaces of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ or the disappearing bonds in ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’. But that’s because this story isn’t just about the puzzle – it’s also about one of the suspects.
Although Hardman tells us that Vera Rossakoff is a ‘charming’ lady, Hastings (our narrator) comes to a different conclusion. He is quite taken aback by the woman’s appearance:
‘Without the least warning the door flew open, and a whirlwind in human form invaded our privacy, bringing with her a swirl of sables (it was as cold as only an English June day can be) and a hat rampant with slaughtered ospreys. Countess Vera Rossakoff was a somewhat disturbing personality.’Rossakoff bombards the men with a passionate defence of Bernard Parker – who is currently the chief suspect – before sweeping out of the room, insisting that she will clear the man’s name. Poirot says very little during this interaction, and offers Hastings (and the reader) little insight into his assessment of the Russian countess, save that he believes she is genuinely Russian.
However, when you read the story for a second time, you realize that Poirot has twigged a lot more about Rossakoff than he’s letting on. Just a few paragraphs after his first meeting with the countess, Poirot is found studying the Russian alphabet. When you know the story’s ending, you know that this is the point where Poirot has worked out the meaning of the cigarette case’s engraving, and so has a good idea who the culprit is.
So, ‘The Double Clue’, on the face of it, bears little resemblance to ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. The set-up, development and solution of the mystery are nothing like that found in Doyle’s story. Instead, the similarity lies in the eventual fate of the female culprit, and in the detective’s lingering admiration for her at the end of the case.
When Poirot has satisfied himself that Rossakoff is the jewel thief, he takes an unusual step. Rather than pushing for her apprehension – which he could no doubt do, as he’s had people arrested on far flimsier evidence and could always fake a séance if he wanted to make her confess – he speaks to the woman confidentially, and offers to let her escape if she hands back the jewels. It’s a rather nice little exchange, in which Poirot and Rossakoff are politeness personified, but utterly unambiguous about what has happened.
Rossakoff hands back the jewels, pays Poirot a compliment, and announces that she will be leaving London. In return, Poirot makes a neat little bow and hands back the cigarette case without comment. Immediately after this, Poirot expresses his admiration of the woman to Hastings:
‘“What a woman!” cried Poirot enthusiastically as we descended the stairs. “Mon Dieu, quelle femme! Not a word of argument – of protestation, of bluff! One quick glance, and she had sized up the position correctly. I tell you, Hastings, a woman who can accept defeat like that – with a careless smile – will go far! She is dangerous, she has the nerves of steel; she –” He tripped heavily.’Poirot’s exclamation of ‘What a woman!’ undoubtedly recalls Holmes’s lifelong admiration of Irene Adler (‘she is always the woman’). But there’s a really important difference here… Holmes admires Adler because she got the better of him; Poirot admires Rossakoff because she recognizes that he got the better of her. And isn’t that just Poirot all over?
It could be argued that, far from Rossakoff being the woman, Poirot is actually the man in this story. After all, like Adler, it’s Poirot who is in the driving seat the whole time (even if his opponent doesn’t realize it), and it’s Poirot who reveals that he saw through a ‘disguise’ (his handing back Rossakoff’s cigarette case is a bit like Adler revealing that she knew all along that the clergyman was Holmes). And it’s Rossakoff – not Poirot – who suggests that her opponent stands almost alone of his gender:
‘It is a great compliment that I pay you there – there are very few men in the world whom I fear.’The fact is that Poirot doesn’t need an Irene Adler – Rossakoff was never going to be the woman for Poirot, because (unlike Holmes) the little Belgian has got plenty of women. Throughout the run of Poirot stories, there will be so so many more female characters than in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I don’t actually know for sure how many female murderers there were in Doyle’s stories, but I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head.* Poirot is surrounded by female murderers, thieves, fraudsters and blackmailers – and he falls for the charms of several of them (Nick Buckley and Jane Wilkinson are the obvious ones, but he’s also very sympathetic to Jacqueline de Bellefort). But the shoe is sometimes on the other foot, and Rossakoff isn’t the first female jewel thief to look on Poirot with ‘affectionate awe’ – Gertie (in ‘The Veiled Lady’) thinks he’s a ‘nippy old devil’, and even hires him herself. As well as the bad girls, Poirot is also surrounded by slightly better behaved women. Two of his regular associates are women, and he reveals a number of friendships – both old and new – with women of different ages (e.g. he acts as ‘avuncular’ to young women like Katherine Grey, but is also rather protective of older women such as Emily Arundell). He also flirts cheekily with younger women in ‘The Triangle at Rhodes’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’, waxes lyrical at the beauty of motherhood in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, and admires the professionalism of the female chemist in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never mind how good a jewel thief she is, Poirot simply hasn’t got room in his life for an Irene Adler.
There’s an interesting little comment at the beginning of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ that reveals something about the differences in how Holmes and Poirot relate to women (or, perhaps, how they relate to their ‘significant others’ Watson and Hastings). Doyle’s short story begins with Watson paying a call on Holmes after a period of separation. Watson explains this:
‘I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other.’As the two men begin to talk, it’s quickly apparent that Holmes doesn’t have the slightest inclination to ask after Mrs Watson. He’s more interested in playing his usual parlour game of deducing odd little nuggets of information about his visitors (such as the fact that Watson has a clumsy parlourmaid) than talking about what’s going on in his friend’s life. So distant have the two men been that Holmes didn’t even know Watson was practicing medicine again. Compare this with Poirot and Hastings’s reunion in Peril at End House. Here, the pair have also been separated by the associate’s marriage. But Poirot and Hastings have been much further apart than Holmes and Watson (who both remained in London, just not in regular communication) – Hastings has moved to Argentina, where he runs a ranch with his wife Dulcie (or Bella, as Hastings can’t seem to remember her name). Nevertheless, it’s clear that, not only has Poirot kept in touch with his old friend, he is also acquainted with Mrs Hastings. In fact, he has a rather high opinion of her.
When Hastings rails at Poirot for questioning his intelligence, he asks whether or not he’d be able to run such a successful ranch if he was as stupid as Poirot continually implies. The detective shakes his head:
‘Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it – you and your wife.’I think the implication here is pretty clear. Poirot has a high regard for Dulcie/Bella, as he believes she’s keeping Hastings on the straight-and-narrow. Holmes, on the other hand, seems monumentally uninterested in his friend’s marriage, and has no concern whatsoever for his old friend’s wife. For Doyle’s detective, there really is only one woman.
Anyway, time to move on to the TV adaptation of ‘The Double Clue’. But just one final point before I do…
Although the story and TV episode are naturally dominated by the introduction of Vera Rossakoff, it’s worth giving a little bit of attention to the presentation of two of the other characters – Marcus Hardman and Bernard Parker.
When Hastings and Poirot first meet Hardman, he is described as ‘a small man, delicately plump, with exquisitely manicured hands and a plaintive tenor voice’. The man describes the scene of the crime to the detective, and is then asked questions about the guests at his tea party. When they reach Parker, Hardman is evasive:
‘He is – er – he is a young fellow. Well, in fact, a young fellow I know.’Now, it’s quickly explained that Hardman’s reluctance comes from the fact that Parker privately organizes the sale of heirlooms for upper class families who have fallen on hard times. His job is a sensitive one, and Hardman is hesitant to reveal such a role exists. However, there’s a lingering suggestion in the way Hardman introduced Parker, and this doesn’t go away when we meet the man himself. Hastings offers the following description of the ‘young fellow’:
‘We found him reclining on some cushions, clad in an amazing dressing-gown of purple and orange. I have seldom taken a greater dislike to anyone than I did to this particular young man with his white, effeminate face and affected lisping speech.’Hardman and Parker are both described in terms of their effeminacy, and there is a question mark placed over their relationship to one another. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say these characters are coded as gay, there’s certainly something ‘other’ about them (particularly Parker) that Hastings finds distasteful. I’m not sure we’re supposed to imagine that Hardman and Parker are definitely in a relationship, but we’re certainly meant to be suspicious that this might be the case.
So now to the ITV adaptation…
The adaptation of ‘The Double Clue’ was written by Anthony Horowitz and directed by Andrew Piddington. On the whole, it’s a fairly faithful retelling of Christie’s story (plot-wise), with a few extra details thrown in to expand the story to fit the TV format.
The biggest alteration, in this respect, is the inclusion of Japp and Miss Lemon – but that’s to be expected from the early series. The addition of Japp alters the story’s set-up a bit, as the theft of Hardman’s jewellery is now part of a series of thefts that have baffled Scotland Yard. Japp is under pressure from his bosses to solve the case, and he enlists Poirot’s help to do so.
This alteration doesn’t really work, as Poirot is able to solve the case with remarkable ease (even for him). He very quickly ascertains that Rossakoff was the only guest present at all of the thefts, a fact which you’d think Japp would have picked up on at some point. There’s a rather clumsy suggestion that Rossakoff’s presence has been overlooked because the police are ‘too English’, but this doesn’t really hold water. In ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, the Russian woman was the first (and only) person anyone apart from Poirot suspected, so it seems strange that Japp would now assume a Russian countess was utterly beyond suspicion. Nevertheless, this explanation allows for Japp to be part of the gang for this episode, which is always welcome in my book.
Aside from this, the only major alteration to Christie’s puzzle comes from the revelation that Lady Runcorn’s maiden name was Beatrice Palmerston, which allows her to more obviously be in the frame for owning the cigarette case.
However, although the clues and puzzle are pretty much the same as in Christie’s short story, there are some quite dramatic alterations to tone in the adaptation. In particular, the two (possible) relationships that are hinted at in the short story undergo quite big changes in the TV episode. I’ll come to Poirot/Rossakoff in a moment, but first I want to look at Hardman/Parker.
The TV version of Hardman (played by David Lyon) is nothing like his literary counterpart. There is nothing of the effeminacy hinted at in the short story, and one would be hard-pressed to describe Lyon’s voice as a ‘plaintive tenor’. Rather than hosting an intimate little tea party, this version of Hardman throws a thoroughly respectable evening do, which is attended by a large number of people. And, while the TV Hardman is a little evasive about his relationship with Parker, this comes across more as dislike, rather than as embarrassment.
Parker, on the other hand, is even more exaggerated than the character in Christie’s story. In the adaptation, the ‘young fellow’ is transformed into a rather slimy – and undeniably camp – individual (played by David Bamber). While the literary character served an embarrassing, but necessary, function in high society, this Parker appears to have insinuated himself into fashionable circles by flirting with, and imposing on, the cash-strapped upper classes.
When Hastings visits Parker at home, he finds him much the same as in Christie’s short story. However, there’s an interesting moment in the TV episode that suggests that this version of the character is more clearly meant to be read as gay. The episode has an additional clue – the discovery of a piece of embroidery marked with the initials ‘B.P.’ – due to the enhanced confusion over who owns the cigarette case. Hastings confronts Parker and asks if this has anything to do with him. Parker says he has no idea what Hastings is talking about, and questions the implications of his being asked if he’s ever done any embroidery. But the way Bamber delivers his lines here is highly suggestive. He demurs and giggles at the question, lowers his eyes, and then looks searchingly at Hastings as if trying to work out a subtext. Parker seems flirtatious, but also curious. It’s like he’s trying to work out whether or not Hastings is speaking to him in code: ‘Are you asking if I’m gay? Do you want me to be gay? Are you gay?’
The uneasy outcome of this is that, while Christie’s 1923 text hinted at the possibility of a gay relationship (albeit not a particularly solid one, given that Hardman is more than happy when he believes Parker is the jewel thief), the 1991 adaptation is uncomfortable with this, and replaces it with a rather unpleasant effete man who flirts with both women (to slime his way into society) and men (when he thinks they’re possible conquests). By removing any effeminacy in the presentation of Hardman, the adaptation makes Parker seem more like a predatory weirdo than a (slightly dodgy) ‘young fellow’. It’s sad to think that the hint in Christie’s story that Hardman is worried his boyfriend has stolen his jewels needed to be played down for TV in the 1990s.
And as the homosexual relationship is erased, a heterosexual one springs up to fill its place. Sigh.
As I’ve said, Poirot’s admiration of Rossakoff in Christie’s short story is the result of her behaviour after he has identified her as the thief. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for the ITV adaptation – instead, it appears someone thought it was time for Poirot to get a girlfriend.
The TV Rossakoff (played here by Kika Markham) is a very different kettle of fish to the character in Christie’s short story. Rather than bursting into the story swathed in fur and feathers, this countess arrives with an air of mystery and romance. We see her leaving a train, surrounded by shadows; we see her sitting at a window gazing wistfully at rain; we see her approach Poirot with grace, elegance and – of course – a hint of tragedy.
Poirot, in turn, is utterly charmed from the first moment he meets Rossakoff. He is visibly infatuated as he bows over her hand and mutters ‘Enchanté, madame,’ and he continues this rather awed approach each time he sees her.
Poirot and Rossakoff start going on dates together. Specifically, they visit an art gallery (filmed in Senate House, a location also used in ‘The Veiled Lady’) and flirt with an over-the-top repressed politeness. He winces when she calls him ‘Hercule’, but they each reveal a little of their souls as they point out art with which they feel a connection. They speak of feeling exiled from their countries, and walk arm-in-arm.
It’s completely rubbish, and it’s the reason I don’t like this episode.
Never mind that Poirot appears to have forgotten the investigation entirely at this point – even though his friend’s job is on the line – he seems to have forgotten all the values and morals that have underpinned his character from the start. While Poirot always has a soft spot for people displaced from their homeland, there’s nothing in any of the stories to suggest that he’d find a jewel thief who lifts necklaces from posh people’s parties any other than dull. Admittedly, Poirot does occasionally let criminals get away (or ‘escape the noose’ if the crime is murder) if he believes they aren’t really ‘bad’ people, but there’s no justification at all for Rossakoff’s thefts, other than that she wanted some nice stuff. So the fact that Poirot just lets her get away with it leaves us with the suggestion that he simply fancies her too much to see her arrested – and that’s not Poirot at all.
That’s right – he just lets her get away with it. And not in the brief ‘I’ve got no evidence, so if you give me the jewels we’ll say no more about it’ way he does in the short story. Oh no. Here, the detective lies to his friends to protect the countess, invents a story about a mysterious tramp, hires a man to play the tramp (which results in Hastings being shot at by the actor Poirot has employed), goes on a romantic picnic with the real thief, retrieves the jewels, puts the blame for the cigarette case on Lady Runcorn (inventing a spurious story about the innocent woman wanting to sell it to Hardman), and then hires two detectives (Redfern and Blake) to watch over Rossakoff as she makes her getaway. It’s a far cry from him simply telling Rossakoff to hurry up and give him the necklace, because he’s got a taxi waiting.
Poirot’s final comments on/to Rossakoff in each of the different versions reveal how much of a shift has occurred in their relationship. In the TV episode, he is clearly heartbroken by the impossibility of their being together. After the case has been ‘resolved’, Poirot and Rossakoff take tea at the railway station and say their goodbyes Brief Encounter style. Poirot admits to the affection and admiration he feels for the woman, but adds (with a note of tragedy) that they are opposites:
‘You must continue your work, and I must continue mine. But not in the same country.’Wait… what? Did Poirot just say that she must continue nicking rich people’s necklaces? How bizarre.
By contrast, Christie’s version of the story has the detective more impressed by the woman’s boldness in defeat. He enthusiastically gushes to Hastings about Rossakoff’s audacious acceptance of the outcome, and the way she didn’t flinch when he confronted her:
‘A remarkable woman. I have a feeling, my friend – a very decided feeling – I shall meet her again. Where, I wonder?’I like this ending better.
To finish up, I want to say something about the way the other characters respond to Poirot getting a girlfriend. Because this doesn’t sit well with Hastings and Miss Lemon, who are thrown together for most of the episode as a result of their friend’s strange behaviour (in fact, a couple of the interviews that are conducted by Poirot and Hastings in the story are carried out by Hastings and Miss Lemon in the adaptation). Neither of them seem able to understand what is going on.
There’s something quite sweet about the way Hastings and Miss Lemon mourn the potential loss of their friend, but also something a bit uncomfortable. Hastings’s reaction – he is utterly baffled and bereft – is in-keeping with the men’s relationship in both the TV show and Christie’s fiction. I’ll be coming on to the ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ soon, but there’s a bit in the 1923 version of that story where Poirot confesses his heartbreak at Hastings’s marriage in a similar tone to the way Hastings’s responds to Poirot’s relationship here. I also quite like the way Hastings becomes rather protective of his friend, determining to complete the investigation and (if necessary) reveal that Rossakoff has been lying.
But Miss Lemon’s reaction is a bit less cute. Her utter distress at the thought of Poirot getting a girlfriend is a bit… well, a bit much. We know how fond of the little Belgian she is, but it borders on downright jealousy here. In one conversation, as she takes a sombre tea with Hastings, she actually seems to be choking down tears as she blurts out: ‘I don’t want to talk about it!’ Never mind that this is a million miles away from the ‘perfect machine’ Miss Lemon of Christie’s fiction, it seems to cross a line in the presentation of the TV character – Miss Lemon doesn’t fancy Poirot, and it’s weird to see her behaving as though she does.
As you can see, this episode irritates me a bit. I much prefer the affectionate fun of Christie’s short story than the doleful ‘star-crossed lovers’ nonsense of the TV version. The 1923 version really reads like a playful take on a Sherlock Holmes story, particularly when it’s read in context of the other Sketch stories. But the TV version removes this playfulness and turns it into something rather melodramatic. I suppose one consolation is that this is definitely not the worst presentation of Poirot’s relationship with Rossakoff in the ITV series – as the detective predicted in Christie’s story, he would run into her again. But it’s going to be a while before I get to that…
One final thing before I finish… it would be remiss of me not to point out that Christie would recycle one half of the story’s ‘double clue’ in a later, much more famous Poirot story. Using the Russian alphabet to decipher a monogram? To paraphrase Poirot:
‘I have a feeling, my friend – a very decided feeling – I shall see that again. Where, I wonder?’Next up… it’s ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’.
* Thank you to Ian Preston, who just reminded me on Twitter that there is a female killer in ‘The Adventure of the Second Stain’. I’m sure there are a couple of others as well, but I can’t remember them.